Benefits of Omega 3 for Anxiety

Benefits of Omega 3 for Anxiety

Omega 3 is the name given to a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Of these, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are the most important.

Omega 3 fats are considered by nutritionists to be “essential” because they cannot be made by the body. Instead, they must be consumed in the diet or, in some cases, can be transformed from one form to another after consumption.

Omega 3 oils are most commonly found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon. An alternative option involves omega 3 supplements. These supplements can make it easy to achieve a desirable dose and avoid the impracticality or smell of regularly cooking fish.

Omega 3 oils have gained notoriety in recent decades due to the plethora of benefits they seem to offer our health; claims that have been repeatedly demonstrated in carefully-controlled clinical trials. Research has shown, for example, that omega 3 fats can be effective for reducing inflammation in the body. In doing so, it is believed that omega 3s can help to reduce many risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, to positively impact discomfort from inflammatory joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and - of most relevance to this article - to affect brain function.

In this article we'll look at the findings of the scientific community when it comes to the effect of omega 3 oil on the brain, with a particular emphasis on anxiety. By the end we'll be able to conclude both whether or not omega 3 oils have any impact on anxiety, and if so just what dose seems to have the most beneficial effect.

Hints from Dietary Studies

The first hint of omega 3's impact on depressive conditions - including anxiety - comes from a number of wide-ranging dietary studies.

One such study involved 7,903 participants who were studied over a period of two years. Throughout the investigation each individual recorded their diet, as well as completed questionnaires designed to highlight any depressive conditions.

During the study period 335 cases of anxiety were experienced by participants, and by cross-referencing these situations with omega 3 intake conclusions could be drawn. Studies suggest that omega 3 oils can be beneficial for mild cases of anxiety. The results showed that the more fish that participants consumed, the lower their odds of suffering from anxiety. Indeed, those individuals consuming higher volumes of oily fish (equivalent to an average of 83 grams per day) were found to be 30% less likely to suffer from negative mental conditions including anxiety, stress and depression.

Another study addressed the problem from a different direction, comparing the level of omega 3 in clinically depressed individuals with those of “healthy” participants. Once again a similar pattern was found, with the anxious participants demonstrating lower levels of omega 3.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning one even larger study that included the results of 255,076 different individuals found that “dietary n-3 PUFA intake is associated with a lower risk of depression”. While this doesn't of course prove that a low intake of omega 3 fats causes conditions like anxiety, it does at least help to demonstrate a relationship between the two.

This is all well and good in theory, but can consuming additional omega 3 oils actually help to reduce anxiety episodes?

The Effects on Anxiety of Supplementing with Omega 3 Fatty Acids

The way to test the impact of omega 3 fats on anxiety is quite simple. Start by taking a representative group of people. Provide one half of the participants with additional omega 3 fats and the other with a placebo, then carefully monitor whether cases of anxiety differ between the two.

Just such a study provided 3 grams of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids to patients suffering from ongoing anxiety problems. While the total sample size was quite small, meaning that the results need to be considered with caution, the data showed that “patients who received n-3 PUFAs for 3 months showed a progressive decline in anxiety scores”. Oily fish like salmon and mackerel are great sources of omega 3 fats.

These results were mirrored by another group of scientists who encouraged women to take part in an exercise program, coupled with either omega 3 oil or a placebo capsule. In line with previous results they found that while both groups saw improvements in their anxiety, likely thanks to the exercise element of their treatment, the group taking omega 3 saw far more marked improvements. In the end it was concluded that “omega-3 supplementation could have positive effects on anxiety and depression”.

One final study worth mentioning involved a group of students all fretting over forthcoming exams. Students were either given 2.5 grams of omega 3 oil per day or a placebo during exam time. Blood samples were taken regularly in order to monitor stress hormone levels, with a particular focus on days just before an exam. It should be no surprise that stress hormone levels rose considerably in the lead-up to an exam.

More interestingly, however, it was found that the students taking omega 3 oils experienced a 14% decline in stress hormone levels and a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms when compared to the placebo group. This result is particularly notable as most past studies have focused on individuals with clinically-defined anxiety disorders. In contrast, the results of this study demonstrate positive effects even among individuals that don't typically suffer from anxiety.

The evidence therefore seems quite clear; boosting your omega 3 levels really do seem to help reduce anxious episodes, whether you suffer from a professionally diagnosed anxiety disorder or not.

How Does Omega 3 Impact Anxiety?

The evidence so far is quite convincing. Repeated studies have found that a low intake of omega 3 is associated with increased risk of anxiety. Furthermore, it has been shown that “topping up” omega 3 levels in the body, either through supplementation or greater consumption of oily fish, seem to improve experiences of anxiety. But how do omega 3 fatty acids actually seem to work their magic? Omega 3 supplements can be a handy way of reducing anxiety for some people.

Depressive syndromes, of which anxiety is just one example, are not yet fully understood by doctors. Research is ongoing, however based on the findings of numerous studies there are a number of mechanisms through which such conditions are believed to arise.

Serotonin is a compound found naturally in the body and serves a number of purposes; most notably it acts as a “neurotransmitter” - helping messages to travel along nerves and around the brain. It also has an impact on blood vessel diameter, meaning that an imbalance can lead to feelings of being flushed, of sweating and even of muscle tremors. Many experts believe that the various symptoms that fall beneath the portmanteau of “depression” (including anxiety) are caused, at least in part, by an imbalance in serotonin levels.

Doctors have found that some drugs - from migraine medications to LSD - can cause a build-up of serotonin in the body. This, in turn, can lead to a range of unpleasant symptoms such as agitation, confusion and headaches. The impact of excessive serotonin is so well-known that it has become known as “Serotonin Syndrome” within the medical community. We know, therefore, that serotonin levels in the body can have a massive impact on many systems, and it is believed by many that omega 3 fats help to correct this imbalance.

As one detailed study concluded: “supplementation with fish oil... produces antidepressant effects by increasing serotonergic neurotransmission, particularly in the hippocampus”. In other words, it seems that omega 3 helps to prevent a build-up of serotonin by ensuring that it travels around the body (and the brain) as intended. This, in turn, can reduce feelings of anxiety.

There's more. Other authorities have proposed that omega fatty acids may also benefit the so-called “HPA axis”. HPA is an acronym that stands for the “hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands”. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain, and the pituitary gland sits just beneath it, while the adrenal glands are to be found above your kidneys. Together, these three organs operate rather like a “closed system”, with each influencing the other. Working in conjunction they control the release of many different hormones. It is known that they can therefore affect mood, digestion and anxiety, among others.

While the method through which these three parts of the body impact one another are highly complex, what matters here is that ultimately they control the volume of cortisol being produced - the so-called “stress hormone”. When high levels of cortisol are released, feelings of anxiety arise. This seems like a particularly “tidy” solution; because it is well-known that serotonin affects the HPA axis. Consequently, diets that are high in omega 3 fatty acids may not just affect serotonin levels in the body directly but also, by extension, the release of stress hormones. This theory has been tested in a laboratory setting. Individuals were provided with an omega 3 supplement comprising of 60mg of EPA and 252mg of DHA.

Each volunteer provided blood samples at regular intervals throughout the day, as well as completed tests to measure their anxiety rating. As expected, cortisol levels closely mirrored physical symptoms of anxiety. More interestingly however, HPA activity - as measured by the release of cortisol - was influenced by the omega 3 fats. They therefore concluded that “an elevated omega 3 intake may reduce distress symptoms”.

How Much Omega 3 Should Be Taken for Anxiety?

Over the last few decades scientific studies have utilised a range of different dosages. Assessing the most beneficial dosage of omega 3 oil for anxiety sufferers is further complicated by the fact that different sources of fish oil can vary in their volumes of EPA and DHA.

Generally speaking, most of the studies showing positive results have used between two and three grams of fish oil per day, though some have used up to ten grams without any negative consequences. It would therefore seem reasonable that taking 2-3 capsules of a standard 1,000mg omega 3 supplement is likely to be beneficial. This should be taken on a daily basis, though may be consumed all at once or spread out throughout the day.


Omega 3 oil has been extensively tested in laboratory settings and has shown itself to be both safe and beneficial for cases of anxiety. Studies are revealing even more about how DHA and EPA positively impact the mind, with evidence suggesting that alongside anxiety it may also help in cases of depression, stress and perhaps even ADHD. As a naturally-occurring substance it is far less intimidating to increase your intake of oily fish or to swallow a couple of capsules each day than it is to rely on prescription medications.

All the same, no article on anxiety would be complete without mentioning the importance of seeking professional medical guidance when it comes to any mood-related condition. Consequently, while omega 3 oils shouldn't be seen as an alternative to traditional therapies, they might just make a useful addition for milder cases when used with the knowledge and agreement of your doctor.